A skier carves a turn on a groomed run below Jupiter Peak in Park City, UT

Ski Trip at Altitude? How to Prepare

Reading Time: 4 minutes

The Uncle Bud’s Hut, part of the 10th Mountain Hut System in Colorado, lies at 11,380 feet. That’s HIGH! And if I remember correctly, the climb from the trailhead was at least 1,000 feet on its own. At that elevation, I felt like I couldn’t drink enough water. And at night when the noise of our daily fun subsided, I could hear my heart beat in between my ears. When ski touring behind the hut, I moved far slower than when I’m at home at 6,800 feet. I wanted one of those oxygen cannisters that climbers on Everest slog up the mountain. So I decided to snoop around the web to find out more about the effects of altitude and helpful tips to mitigate the symptoms.

Skiing, biking, running, or even fishing at high altitudes can be physically demanding, as the thin air can make it harder to catch your breath and perform at your best. The air is thinner and therefore you are providing less oxygen to your muscles with each breath. Oxygen concentration in the atmosphere is ~20% at sea level and only 7% at 29,000 feet elevation on top of Mt. Everest. The higher you go, the less oxygen is available to your body, so you breathe harder and faster to compensate. Aerobic capacity is a measure of the body’s ability to use oxygen during exercise, and it’s important for activities such as skiing that require sustained physical effort. At high altitudes, the lack of oxygen can lead to a decrease in aerobic capacity, which can diminish performance.

In terms of skiing, there are several ways to mitigate the effects of altitude on aerobic capacity. One way is to gradually acclimate by spending extra time at intermediate altitudes before skiing up high. It is also important to stay hydrated and to avoid alcohol and other depressants, which can further impair oxygen intake.

In addition to impacting aerobic capacity, skiing at high altitudes can also lead to other physical effects such as fatigue and dehydration due to the dry air and increased physical demand. I felt this massively when I was above 11,000 feet on my hut trip. I felt myself moving slowly and couldn’t drink enough water.

A skier carves a powder turn below Jupiter Peak in Park City, UT
Jupiter Peak in Park City, UT: 10,000 feet above sea level

Effects at Specific Altitudes

But what altitudes actually have an effect on the body? At elevations between 0 and 2,000 feet, the effects of altitude are generally minimal. At this range, the air is still relatively thick with plenty of oxygen available for the body.

At elevations between 2,000 and 8,000 feet (600 to 2,400 meters), the effects of altitude can begin to become more noticeable. At these elevations, the air is thinner and there is less oxygen available. This is good news if you’re coming to Park City! The town and base areas at our two local hills sit nicely at 7,000 feet. But once you get into higher terrain, you might begin to feel symptoms of altitude sickness.

At elevations above 8,000 feet (2,400 meters), the effects of altitude can become more pronounced. At these elevations, the air is significantly thinner, and there is less oxygen available. Symptoms of altitude sickness, such as headache, nausea, and fatigue can occur. Also, the lower air pressure at high altitudes can cause gas to expand in the stomach, which can lead to bloating and discomfort. It is important for individuals to take steps to prevent or treat these symptoms.

How to Deal with Elevation

So what exactly should you do if you’re coming from sea level to Park City or another of your favorite mountain towns? I’d say take it easy and drink a lot of water for the first day or two. You could go wild and climb Jupiter Peak (see image above) at Park City Mountain or the Chutes at Deer Valley on day one, but that could result in symptoms of altitude sickness right off the bat. Or you could check out the terrain and try to identify some runs that you know you’ll be capable on. A handy mountain guide or host will be happy to point those out. And by the second or third day, you may be acclimatized enough to hit some of the higher-elevation terrain.

Additionally, staying hydrated is key. On the hut trip I mentioned in the beginning, the remedy for me was to drink a lot of water. I didn’t realize how much I had dehydrated myself on the first day while hauling 55 pounds of gear on my back. Drinking water and taking it easy the second day helped me deal with the fatigue. On the ski hill, keeping a soft flask of water in your jacket or a low-profile hydration pack let’s you drink on the fly. And as an added bonus, staying hydrated keeps you a little warmer in cold mountain conditions!

Salomon Soft Flask
A soft flask for water is low-profile and folds up when empty

One last note: I’m not a doctor or anyone specialized in the medical effects of elevation on the body. I do have a wealth of experience in the mountains, though, and have felt the effects of working too hard before acclimatizing first hand. If you’re concerned about taking a trip to a high-elevation area due to altitude sickness or an underlying condition, please consult your doctor.

By Paul Boyle, Ecommerce Manager, jans.com

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Additional Links:

Uncle Bud’s Hut

How to Avoid Knee Pain While Skiing